PORTLAND, Maine — They fled their homeland on their own. Teenage boys looking for asylum from war-torn Africa.
Settling in Portland last year, Ulrich Kavuyimbo and Quentin Ndayishimiye found solace at Portland High School.
On Tuesday their story, along with those of scores of other refugees and immigrants who walk these halls, became a permanent part of the school.
The mural “With Eyes in our Hearts” was unveiled in homage to the changing student body — represented by 43 countries and 36 languages.
“This is showcasing student art, student effort and students’ stories,” said Assistant Principal Kathie Marquis-Girard.
In bold, swirling gestures, African women dance to a tribal drum, outstretched hands cup a blue wave and a tree with deep roots grows besides the visage of an ethnic woman in a headscarf.
The 3-D wall pieces that will greet students when they return to school next week are the brainchild of Maria Darrow of Falmouth. The 21-year-old Amherst College student spent her summer connecting with Portland High School students to translate their experiences into art.
“Hopefully we will understand each other a little bit better,” said Darrow, whose mother immigrated here from Argentina.
Her interest in community engagement and art gave her the idea for the project, which served as a summer internship. She interviewed several students and tapped three to help her paint the mural. Zahra Rikan, a former student from Iraq, gave her the title for the piece when she said, “I wish I could tell [other students] to look not with their eyes but with their heart.”
Universal scenes of an open keyhole, a golden bird and black-and-white hands shaking symbolize the diverse student body. In one corner, a soccer player and a map of Maine, outlined as an architect’s rendering, are more personal, representing Ndayishimiye’s reality and hopefully future.
“I want to be an architect,” beamed the 19-year-old, who wears a medallion in the shape of Africa around his neck.
“I’m in America now. There is opportunity for me to show my talent,” said the Burundi native, examining the project he spent three weeks on this summer. “It shows me you can do things.”
Up a flight of stairs, a scene of a wistful looking girl in a headdress is inscribed in Arabic calligraphy. It reads: “Friendship is the language of the heart, before it’s a language of words,” Darrow translates.
Installing this triptych in the stairwell was no accident. “It’s the experience of coming from another country or another place. You are in the doorway, you can see both sides, but you are in between both places,” said Darrow.
Student Nilab Nasrat, who moved to Maine two and a half years ago from Afghanistan, can relate. “It’s amazing,” said the 19-year-old, staring at the vivid scenes. “It’s so interesting to look at. When you walk through the hallway it used to be kind of boring.”
And next week when the doors fling open and another school year begins, the new face of Portland High School will be ready for its closeup.
“I want to be standing right here when they walk in and see it,” said Marquis-Girard.